Magazine, Eleanor Roosevelt

After her trip in the Caribbean in the summer of 1934, Mrs. Roosevelt, who had a column in the magazine Women’s Home Companion, recorded her impressions of Puerto Rico, including the island’s people and culture. She assessed the precarious living conditions of the islanders, and the impact of the Depression. Mrs. Roosevelt also highlighted the role of Puerto Rican women in the labor force. In this column, the First Lady describes the needlework Puerto Rican women do at home as beautiful, but underpaid. She claims that factory needlework provides fair wages. Compare that claim with other sources.

Source: Roosevelt, Eleanor. “Our Island Possessions.” In Woman’s Home Companion. Oct., 1934.


MANY TIMES I wonder whether the people of the United States have any real interest in our insular possessions. I doubt if many of us even know that we own the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico or Hawaii. We do realize the Philippines are in our possession chiefly, I think, because we have disagreed so much as to whether they ought to be given their freedom or not; and I think it is generally realized that we control the Canal Zone, particularly since the fleet came through!

Occasionally when our navy planes make a flight to Hawaii someone says, “I suppose we do have some interest in that island in the Pacific.” A few people every winter take a trip to Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands and discover that they do not have to have passports, but even so, few of us fully take in the fact that these islands are a part of the United States of America and that what befalls them and their people is of great interest to us as American citizens.

Last winter I took a trip by air, leaving Miami early in the morning, spending a night in Haiti and arriving at three o’clock the next afternoon in the Virgin Islands after stopping only for a few minutes in Puerto Rico. I had been told that the Virgin Islands had been costing our government each year a little more until finally Congress had become convinced that it would be more economical to spend enough to rehabilitate the people and try to make them self-supporting. They have, therefore, begun to work out a real plan.

THE POPULATION of these islands is partly white and partly colored. The last owners were Danish and many of the customs and habits are those inherited from Danish rule and many, many of the people have been accustomed to turning to the government or to the heads of big plantations for complete guidance and care. So the first thing that needs to be done is to build up a sense of self-reliance and initiative.

On landing at St. Thomas, which is on the whole the loveliest of these islands, we drove over a road made by C. W. A. labor to the top of a mountain where we could look down on the sparkling green water of the bay beyond. There are beautiful beaches for bathing on St. Thomas and apparently sharks do not frequent the waters, at least near the shore, for I bathed there the following morning without receiving any warning as to these dread animals.

We visited the hospital for children, held a meeting of the women in the school, went to the operative stores which will, I think, be more successful as the workers get better teaching, then drove off to what will shortly be a new hotel. It is being erected in a most charming spot, on top of a steep hill where the old tower known as Bluebeard’s Tower looks across at another hill where Blackbeard’s Tower stands. . . . Bluebeard’s Tower is being preserved so visitors may walk to the top and get a view of the harbor. The hotel is being built around three sides of a square. The dining room is to have a porch for dining al fresco. I can hardly wait to go down and stay in this hotel and I hope that the methods of travel both by air and by water will shortly be improved so that a trip to St. Thomas will be a pleasant winter holiday, financially within the reach of anyone of moderate means.

THERE are two other islands within easy reach of St. Thomas: St. John where the bay trees grow which once produced the bay rum our fathers used, and St. Croix. We visited St. Croix which has two small towns and some agricultural land, flat and not as interesting but more productive. Here agricultural and housing experiments are being tried.

On the third day of the trip I visited Puerto Rico. If you want to know anything of this island and its people you must spend several days there, and you will enjoy all these days and wish you could stay longer for its scenery is beautiful and varied. Mountains, rich valleys, seashore and plains are all combined in an island one hundred miles long and thirty miles wide. Puerto Rico has a better rainfall than the Virgin Islands and we hope that the frequent hurricanes of the past three years are not going to continue for hitherto she has only suffered occasionally from these. They have done a great deal of harm, practically ruining the coffee plantations and citrus and coconut groves.

On this account many Puerto Ricans have gone from the rural districts into the outskirts of the cities where dangerous slums have been formed. The population of about 1,600,000 people cannot be fed by what is produced on the land no matter what improved methods of agriculture are instituted. We are at last waking up to the fact that a long term plan must be made for this island and it is at present being worked out, including all the government departments concerned and a committee of Puerto Ricans themselves.

There are questions of education and questions of health and economic questions that we could discuss at length, but the industry which largely employs women will probably be of primary interest to the women of our country. This is the needlework industry. In some districts even little girls in the school are never without their needlework. When the women are nor doing housework and as soon as a little girl has eaten her lunch between school sessions, this handwork is taken up. To make it more profitable, the women should be taught to work with more exactness and perhaps with greater perfection and detail, although many of them do very beautiful work now. A few of them who work in the factories earn fair wages, but for sewing done in the home they are paid absurdly low wages. For drawing threads and cutting a dozen handkerchiefs out of a piece of cloth, a woman receives one and one-half cents a dozen; for whipping the edges and doing a small embroidered design in each corner, a woman receives three cents per dozen.

The finished handkerchief is sold for seven cents a dozen in a retail shop in the United States. The material used is so poor that it will certainly not last as long as would a machine-made handkerchief of slightly better material. Another example is the nightgowns scalloped on neck and sleeves with a hand-embroidered design and hand sewn seams.

A woman receives two dollars a dozen for these and spends two weeks making them. The manufacturer sells them to a distributing agent in United Stares for somewhere around eight dollars a dozen and you buy them from a department store for one dollar and ninety-five cents each, twenty-three dollars and forty cents a dozen.

THE STANDARDS of living in Puerto Rico are low. The population is increasing rapidly. This island is closely tied to our country the people are constantly coming here to establish themselves and we are sending some of our own people to Puerto Rico to work and live on the island. Therefore, let us take a more intelligent interest in our beautiful possession with its possibilities for a happy people who unfortunately have been buffeted by nature and exploited by man. So women let us think a little about our future citizens in all these islands and try to bring about wherever our flag lies conditions of which we can be proud.